IssueOctober 2009
Feature by Sareena Rai

I thought this would be a vox pop bit in Peace News but as it goes, I am beginning to feel weirder and weirder about walking around with a pen and a little notebook in my hand asking people questions about their lives.

I had it all planned; I was to do what I generally like doing best anyway – wander around the village early in the morning, say my usual “namaste” to all, most of whom are small land holding farmers.

Last week I received some ripe cucumbers and pears from households who were clearing the overgrown jungle in their yards. I had stopped for a little chit chat about who’s doing what, who’s sick etc, and every time I opened my mouth to talk about the article, I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to ruin the mood by getting all serious.

This morning I ended up walking around, happily, smiling my head off because I love the sights, smells and sounds, and said my “namastes”, and once again I couldn’t pluck up the courage to go from saying “namaste, have you had tea yet?” (common Nepali greeting in the morning) to then saying: “I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask you for an article I’m doing…. questions such as how has inflation hit you? And the bad harvest? Delayed monsoon? The ongoing strikes? The political crisis?” I started to think I’m not cut out for journalism. Would be better to have a secret tape recorder on hand all the time (I know someone who does). But then that would be dishonest. It would also be better if they all had email and I could just send them over questions like they do these days.

For me, even though most village elders here cannot read and write, and do not own a computer, to talk to them is something so intimate and personal, and warm, that I came to the conclusion that I can only interview people who have computers and who are already probably extremely open about their lives in this new techno, modern society of the Kathmandu metropolis.

Cold and warm people – these were my new categories. Cold people usually do not have time but they either like or do not mind being interviewed and generally do not mind publicising what they think. Warm ones insist you stay for a chat, for tea, offer you cucumbers and pears from their gardens but would not understand if you started to write down what they said and printed it on paper, unless they requested you to do it.

I gave it one last try and went to one of my favourite households in the village. A tiny stocky woman with pale skin and freckles and blue-grey eyes – rather strange for a Nepali - lives there with her husband and three sons.

I wandered into her courtyard full of thick flowering groves and dotted with yellow pumpkin flowers. Last week she had given me cuttings to plant around my home; I loved the way she called the purple-flowered trees “ink-coloured trees”. But the mud house was empty.

It was like a scene from a movie. There I was, standing in the now-pouring rain, and I needed to get this article done that was already way overdue. Outside the woman’s house was a shed. I stood in front of it, facing her goats who were chewing on the pile of grass they sat on, staring at me, and making goat noises as if to grunt and laugh… at me.

I gave them the daggers back. A huge mound of thick-smelling compost smoked away during the monsoon rain.

“This is crap,” I said aloud “I can’t do it anymore”.

Back at home I looked through my notebook and came across one interview I had done during the course of my guilt for having promised to do an article. That is the one I have for you today. I can interview one person and write one story perhaps.

I wasn’t quite sure how to title this article. I of course have my own opinion on the political situation unfolding here, the inflation, the ongoing migration and continual breeding ground for countless NGOs and INGOs (non-governmental and international non-governmental organisations) who don’t seem to be suffering as much as their counterparts at home from a recession.

However, one in-depth conversation with a worker poses many questions about why so many people have abandoned revolution and self-determination for security provided by foreign aid.

Is this neo-colonialism or just human nature? Maybe neo-colonialism is the new human nature. So, in this last attempt to provide readers with some news, I have presumed the reader has a little background knowledge of Nepal’s recent past, and have written what was told to me and ask you to judge for yourself what’s really happening here.

I’ve known Rama for ten years now. She’s like me, a Rai from the eastern Himalayas – so-called descendents of Ghengis Khan and the Mongolian empire. She has our typical features – “chimsee, nepti” we say – which means slit-eyed, flat-nosed.

She was working for an expatriate we knew and as the years went by we kept in touch and became friends. She is much older than me, and we have very little in common in our lives, but somehow we became close.

We talk politics together and she’s particularly aware of class issues. I love her like a mother. What is intriguing about Rama is what she does for a living. She works for mainly “white” people who live in Kathmandu. These people work in NGOs that are supposedly here to develop our country. They are experts in human development and are here to serve the poor. Nepalis love them; they bring money and they treat servants better than your average rich Nepali.

On the flip side, the foreigners love the adoration they receive from Nepalis – all foreigners are good, all foreigners are “rich”. To have this position, whether there is truth in it or not in a “developing country” is extremely flattering to the ego and extremely seductive for your average white person. Many foreigners live here because they would never get such facilities, adoration and respect back home. In fact, they even refuse to acknowledge people like Rama as servants. They instead call them “didis” (elder sisters).

But I’ll tell you a funny story. I knew a little European girl once who lived in Nepal. She was being nasty to her real big sister one day and I told her: “Don’t be mean to your didi!”. And the little girl replied: “She’s not my didi! She doesn’t wash my clothes for me!”

The word “didi”, though meaning big sister, is now the synonym of “servant” in expatriate circles. In fact a lot of expatriates often can only experience a close relationship with a typical Nepali through their relationships with their “didis”, because a lot of them hardly ever leave Kathmandu city to go to the rural areas, unless its work-related.

Most employers are extremely nice and treat their didis humanely. There’s a bit of guilt at first, but after a while they get used to it and the didi becomes an invisible member of the household. Rama once had to walk past an employer in action with two others, all sleeping naked together. They laughed when they saw that she saw. She has many such stories that through time, bit by bit leak out into the open. But most of the time she holds her head high as if she’s doing god’s work.

And she washes underwear.

I once said to her: “Aren’t they shy or embarrassed to give their panties to an old woman to hand wash?” She replies quietly: “They are not like us”. “They have not hurt me in anyway, so I will never want to do anything to harm them,” she says if I ever ask if she feels like quitting.

I guess you can be a slave from desperation; without realising what dignity means anymore, you start to think that getting a job means your employer did you a life-saving favour.

For illiterate villagers who end up being household staff for white people, it is just that. Their job is a gift and they will always feel indebted to the employer.

Rama feels she will be hurting her employers, or letting them down, if she quits. They treat her well, she feels, and she does not want to let them down, despite witnessing things she would never accept in a Nepali household. No Nepali employer can match this. So, she’s never quit.

In fact, the foreigners she’s worked for always leave her first as they hop to the next exotic destination and find new didis in other broken countries they have to go fix; and though each time it breaks her heart, she picks up the pieces and looks for another all over again. Perhaps Rama’s life is an analogy of the greater situation of Nepal right now.

Rama Chettri, née Rai. 55 years old. Non- permanent address: Thimi (a Newari farmer’s settlement outside Kathmandu, on the way to the major city of Bhaktapur).

Peace News: Please explain what you do.
Rama: I’ve been a cleaning lady and cook for expatriates living in Nepal, for about 25 years. I have worked with these people all my life, so I know foreign standards of living – I know their hygiene standards and how things have to be kept clean, how they like to take showers every day. I know how to wash their clothes, separate the whites, wash underwear in cold water, iron and fold clothes the way they like it. I can cook all their food - bake any pie – lemon meringue to chicken and sausage pie. I can make French crepes better than a French person. I can also look after small children and know all about gardening and vegetable farming too.

PN: How much do you get paid currently and how would you classify yourself – working class?
R: I work full-time and make 6,000 rupees a month. I consider myself working class, a worker, though I know farming because I grew up in the rurals.

PN: Do you associate yourself to any political party?
R: I sympathised with the Maoist cause. I was in fact a Maoist. Now I am tired of these parties. Whoever comes along it seems they only come for their own benefit.

PN: Are you involved in any women’s groups in your area? Aren’t they helpful?
R: I have honestly been put off women’s groups too. Sometimes it’s the women who are bringing women down. If they see any women who are really in trouble, such as a widow like myself, they talk about them behind their backs and laugh at them. And the chairpersons of these groups are usually Brahmin or Chettri [higher caste women in the Hindu social strata]. I would have liked to get involved in a janjati [ethnic minority] group but have yet to come across one. Ma ahileh mero afno pakura leh baanchdaichu - I am currently surviving from my own arm [which is to say she is struggling to survive and only has herself to rely on].

PN: What are your views on the political crisis in the country?
R: Nepal is in a terrible state just now. I think it’s going to get worse. The Maoists did make some changes when they were in the government. Baburam Bhattarai [Maoist finance minister] raised a lot of tax money during his tenure – more than anyone in history. See, I don’t view him as a “Maoist” but as an individual with a good brain. He, with his wife Hisila Yami [Maoist Central Committee member and ex-minister of tourism and water] are true inspirations. They have struggled so much yet have gained little. I respect them for who they are as human beings, not for the party they represented. Sometimes I think the old days were better. There was one king, everyone had to respect him and therefore there were limitations.
Now there’s a king in every home. How can we say we need leaders when these days everyone claims to be a leader and has built up power everywhere. If I follow you today, you’ll kill me tomorrow. That’s the way it is now. How can we believe in the leaders of today? I think the farmers are alright. They can sell ek muti [a small fist full] of spinach for 20 rupees. That small fist seems to get smaller each year – that’s why I say they seem to do alright. They can make 200 rupees per day selling spinach.

PN:But you make more than that don’t you?
R: I make 300 rupees a day, its true, however it’s a struggle. I have to buy my own vegetables. And fruit? One kilo of apples is 250 rupees nowadays! I’m not feeling well but I can’t afford to buy fruit. I still have my youngest daughter living with me with her child. She doesn’t work and her husband has abandoned her. I often think about going abroad as a migrant worker somewhere, but apparently workers don’t get what they’re promised.
So I’m doing what I’ve always done; working for foreigners who work in INGOs. Sometimes I think without them, I would have died. I raised three daughters cleaning their houses, washing their clothes, looking after their children, cooking their food.
Nepalis won’t even spit on our hands if we ask them to. It’s been because of foreigners from Europe and America that I’ve survived all these years. They trust me and I’m surviving because of them. That is why I respect them more than my own people who have never given me anything. But times are hard now, everything has gone up. I cannot survive in a household of three with just 6,000 rupees a month. I am going to be strong now and I am going to ask for a raise.

Price hikes in the past six months in Nepal

1 kg cucumber 25/30 rupees – now 90 rupees.
1 kg tomatoes 15-25 rupees – now 60 rupees.
1 kg long green beans [simi] 30 rupees – now 60 rupees.
2 ½ kg red potatoes 30-40 rupees – now 110 rupees.
Sack of 30 kg rice 560 rupees – now 1,150 rupees.
1 kg red lentils [daal] 30-35 rupees – now 110 rupees. 1 kg black daal 30 rupees – now 110 rupees
Mustard spinach four mutas [fists-full] 10 rupees – now two fists are 10 rupees.
1 kg onions 15-25 rupees – now 60 rupees
1 kg eggplant 2-5 rupees – now 60 rupees
1 kg cabbage 2 rupees – now 60 rupees
1 kg cauliflower 15-30 rupees - now 60 rupees
1 kg zuccini 15-20 rupees – now 55-60 rupees
1 pau (200 grams) garlic 10-12 rupees – now 25 rupees